This article discusses the evolving trend of mobile applications and their increasing use by engineers. With the help of mobile applications for smartphone and tablet, engineers are discovering innovative ways to work that don’t have them tied to their desks. Apps allow engineers to bring drawings with them while on the road, to collaborate with other engineers, and to access information on the shop floor or in the field. Due to the very nature of the mobile platform on which they sit, applications can’t be used at every job. Their adoption depends on the type of work, the work environment, and employees’ attitude. If enough employees do have their own personal devices, there are apps that let employers update employees on the shop floor or in the field. Many engineers use mobile applications to collaborate with their design-team members or to show others, like customers or suppliers, how a product will look or will function. Engineers can also share computer-aided design drawings, design work, spec sheets, and the like through the technology.
Is the desktop computer being slowly phased out as tablets and smartphones move into the space?
Perhaps. And with good reason, says Marc Schulman, president of MultiEducator Inc. His company, in New Rochelle, N.Y., creates engineering and history apps, among others.
“We have to get used to the idea that the day of the computer is being replaced by that of the iPhone and iPad, which are almost as powerful as computers and in the not-to-distant future will be as powerful,” Schulman said. “Your mobile device does everything you could possibly need, but fits into your bag.”
As Schulman sees it, “People need tools equivalent with what they have on their desktop but that they can take with them wherever they go.”
That last point is the key: Mobility. With the help of mobile applications for smartphone and tablet, engineers are discovering new ways to work that don’t have them tied to their desks. Pretty much whatever job you can do on a desktop you can do on a mobile device running the proper app, Schulman said.
Mobile apps aren’t ideal for everything engineers do, but the user base is definitely growing, he added.
Apps allow engineers to bring drawings with them while on the road, to collaborate with other engineers, and to access information on the shop floor or in the field.
MultiEducator has created the For-mulator series. Engineering Pro, the app from the series most applicable to mechanical engineers, includes formulas for chemical, civil, electrical, environmental, hydrological, and mechanical engineering.
In addition to formulas, engineers often need access to design and drawing information when away from the office, said Richard Allen, director of product portfolio management at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. of Waltham, Mass.
“In the old days you’d lug around big, heavy blueprints,” he said. “And still a fair number of people bring tubes and drawings around the shop floor and to suppliers and customers. It’s less than ideal.”
His company makes eDrawings, a mobile application viewer that depicts 3-D models and 2-D drawings created with any widely used CAD system. It takes the place of a roll of blueprints, Allen said.
According to Allen, “Mobile theoretically gives you access to your entire company’s vault when you’re away from your desktop.”
Shortly after Alex Dudick purchased an Android, he downloaded the Tasker app to customize his smartphones to his preferences. Other than that, the mechanical engineer, a product engineer for Chrysler’s transmission group, tends to go with simple apps related to his job.
For instance, he uses Accusoft, a bar-code scanning application, to scan bar codes on the production floor. That comes in handy when trying to determine exactly what type of part he’s looking at, since several parts tend to look identical at first glance. The scan can also give information on when the part was made, Dudick said.
At a previous position he would have loved an app like LogMeIn or Ignition, which can log users in to their desktop computers remotely. Dudick said that would have come in handy the many times he needed to view a document on his desktop while out on the plant floor.
Otherwise, he tends to use the same apps many rely on: a dictionary, a measurement convertor, a calendar, a shipping app for tracking and sending, and an app that allow users to fill out and sign consent forms and other forms and updates them to a database.
Other apps, like those that can be integrated with a company’s enterprise resource planning system, depend on the scope of the company and its policies on mobile device use, Dudick said.
Because of the very nature of the mobile platform on which they sit, applications can’t be used at every job. Their adoption depends on the type of work, the work environment, and employees’ attitude.
“In one of the plants I work with we can’t use our phones because they have a built-in camera,” Dudick said. “It’d be a fireable offense if the wrong person saw you with your phone.”
Even when they’re allowed, encouraging fellow employees to adopt mobile applications can sometimes be difficult, no matter how helpful that app might be for a job, he added.
“Getting new equipment into a plant can be tough in manufacturing and engineering because there’s still a significant amount of baby boomers who don’t care to have a smartphone,” Dudick said. “We have a transmissions subgroup with 15 people in it and not more five have a smartphone.
“Trying to change the culture can be a problem,” he said. “If people don’t have a smartphone or don’t want to use them, it can be hard for companies to make that shift.”
But if enough employees do have their own personal devices, there are apps that let employers update employees on the shop floor or in the field. These types of workers don’t have easy access to e-mail and potentially miss company updates that office workers receive said Jonathan Erwin, chief executive officer at Red e App in Louisville, Ky.
His company’s app does , just that, and is used by companies in excavation, manufacturing, construction, mining, retail, and other fields with dispersed work forces. Messages can be from human resources, updating employees on a new policy, on training being offered, or on an open-enrollment insurance reminder, Erwin said.
Retriever Communication of Sydney, Australia, builds mobile applications specifically for users in the field. The apps’ information, like all others, are stored on offsite servers, or “in the cloud” in industry parlance, rather than on a company’s server or directly on a user’s desktop, said Mary Brittain-White, the company’s chief executive officer and founder.
“Mobile in the cloud is really the only way to go because setting up on construction sites would be horrendous,” she added.
Employees usually check their devices for messages from their employers during breaks, in the evenings, or on weekends, Erwin said. Those without mobile devices can check their messages from a desktop on a web application tied to the mobile app, Erwin said.
“Mobile theoretically gives you access to your entire company’s vault when you’re away from your desktop.”
For his part, Dudick finds mobile apps so useful that he’s branching into application development in his off time. He mostly creates applications for small business owners who want to allow customers to log into company websites. That kind of capability is often critical for small business owners, he said.
Of course, many engineers use mobile applications to collaborate with their design-team members or to show others, like customers or suppliers, how a product will look or will function.
StoryDesk, for example, is a presentation application that differs from typical slide-slow presentation software in that presenters can navigate deeper within a particular subset of slides or can present images in linear order, said Jordan Stolper, chief executive officer at StoryDesk in New York City.
“This is for people with complex ideas or designs they want to present,” he said. “The iPad lends itself well to that because the navigational and hierarchical norms are different than you’d find on the web.”
In other words, users can slide images across the screen, but can also show a subset of images beneath a particular slide, to explain the main slide’s concept in greater detail.
“For engineers, this is for a high-level concept you need to explain to different people with different degrees of detail,” Stolper said. “So you can dive down and cover the important stuff when you have to and then swing back up and continue on in the conversation.”
Zoom Video Communications, founded by engineers from Cisco and WebEx, offers a Zoom Collaboration tool for desktop, tablet, and other mobile devices that allows up to 25 people to meet live in cyberspace.
Distributed engineering teams often use the tool for virtual meetings, said Nick Chong, head of product marketing for the Santa Clara, Calif., company. Engineers can also share CAD drawings, design work, spec sheets, and the like through the technology, he said.
Home and Away
So what of the future? Many expect to see mobile applications grow in use, just as software for the desktop has grown. Engineering companies won’t be left out of that growth, Dudick said.
“Have you been to a smaller shop and seen them use iPad for point of purchase? I think we’ll end up having that on the shop floor because a lot of shop floors have limited computer integration,” he said.
“There’s not many computer systems on a manufacturing floor because they take up space and can be a distraction and expensive,” he said. “But in the future, employees will use touch screens to communicate internally—it’s a portable way to reach people.”
He also predicts a rise in bar-code scanning apps used in manufacturing plants.
Richard Allen of SolidWorks expects more design creation tools over and above viewing, red line, and markup mobile apps currently offered. These types of apps could be integrated with a company’s product data management system.
“Engineers could gain mobile access to the secure levels of their PDM system with the right user name and password,” he said.
Down the road, analysis results are likely to be available on mobile devices as well, Allen said. They could be viewed at sales, marketing, and manufacturing meetings.
In fact, he doesn’t rule out engineers getting or sharing information via a mobile app even when they’re seated in front of their desktop.
“As engineers, we have a history of using mice and big screen monitors,” he said. “But it might be more effective to use mobile as that category continues to change.”
In other words, don’t forget your smartphone.